The first in a series of interviews with authors due to appear at this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate.
Cathi Unsworth – Author of The Not Knowing, The Singer, Bad Penny Blues, editor of London Noir, and upcoming new novel Weirdo.
You have a unique style and voice in the ‘crime’ genre – who, other than Derek Raymond, inspired your writing and is there one book or author that has influenced you in particular?
I love James Ellroy for redefining the genre and making the place, rather than one single series character, the main focus of his work; and for being so Goddamn clever. Then there are those authors who I feel are the spiritual offspring of Raymond and Ellroy, David Peace, Jake Arnott and the big Geordie lad helming my panel, Martyn Waites. They have all run with the idea of writing the hidden histories of a time and place to stunning effect, and having the wider social and pop cultural context makes the work all the more powerful. Also, two really great BBC television series – Edge of Darkness and Our Friends in The North.
Who are your favourite current crime fiction authors – do you read across the board: UK/US/Scandinavia ?
I read as much as I possibly can, a lot of the time I am reading for research, but I try and take in as broad a spectrum as I can. Apart from the above mentioned authors I was recently very taken with Big Machine by Victor LaValle, on No Exit Press, an imprint that has always taken a punt on crime writers of a radically different stripe, and loved Acts of Violence by Ryan David Jahn, a very worthy winner of last year’s John Creasey Dagger. That reminded me of the first time I read 1974 by David Peace, which is just about the highest compliment I can give.
Will your appearance at this year’s Old Blood panel at Harrogate be your first time back there since you were on the New Blood panel? Do you enjoy the festivals and public parts of the writer’s life, when so much of the other time is presumably spent in a lot of isolation?
It’ll be my third time – I was here two years ago to do a very interesting panel on writers who love music, with Dreda Say Mitchell, Martyn Waites and John Harvey, chaired by Mojo’s Andrew Male. I do love coming to Harrogate, to meet with friends and because I love Yorkshire so much – I’ll be taking the opportunity to head out into the Dales and do a bit of rambling while I’m there. I do enjoy festivals and events, because I love to meet the people who read my books – they are a suave bunch. But I don’t actually spend very much time in isolation as I work four days a week, so events like these get turned into holiday opportunities as well – my walking boots are always in the back of the car!
What was the last great crime movie you watched – old or modern?
In tribute to the passing of a legend, The Pawnbroker by Sidney Lumet – one of the most emotionally powerful films I have ever seen, with a mighty score by Quincy Jones.
Do you have a particular writing schedule/regime and any unusual writing habits or quirks?
I write all day on Thursdays, my day off from work, and on evenings and weekends. I just get up as early as possible and get going with a big pot of coffee and a stack of Gauloises Blondes. Often I find the whole day has passed in what seems like five minutes. I sometimes get obsessed with pieces of music that I have to listen to to get the atmosphere right for what I am writing. The first chapter of The Not Knowing is scored down to the second to ‘On The Other Side of Relaxation’ by Barry Adamson, the first track on his ‘Moss Side Story’ LP. It had the perfect atmosphere of impending, escalating terror.
Only the title is the same as Simon Everill’s book, and the setting of Norfolk, but not where his was (the Fens on the Cambridgeshire border) but an approximation of the seaside resort town where I grew up. I did want to bring something of the rural horror feel that Everill’s book has to it – the Norfolk Broads and the long, windswept beaches make a very eerie backdrop to strange goings on, and in the book I wanted to explore the notion of identity and belonging, clans and cults, outsiders and locals – what unites us and what divides us. You will, I am sure, be familiar with the expression Normal For Norfolk, so it is an ideal setting to look into these things. I also draw reference from historical characters who haunt this landscape – Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General being one notorious villain, and my favourite, Captain Swing, who was like the 19th century rural equivalent of Anonymous. I was inspired by films like Michael Reeve’s Witchfinder General and Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw, as well as a book called Unquiet Country by Robert Lee. Google that one and look at the face on the front cover – it says it all.
In The Not Knowing you make quite a mention of migraines – are they something you suffer from personally and, if so, do you work mainly on screen or do you write any drafts in longhand?
Yes, I have suffered from migraines since I was 12 years old, had no idea what was happening to me and was too scared to tell anyone in case I was going mad. They still do plague me, but not with quite the violent intensity they had in my youth. I have had to work on computers for the past 20 years or so, ever since the magazine industry (which I still work in) went over to computers and, despite what we are always told, I don’t doubt that they have contributed to deterioration of my eyesight. I did write the whole first draft of TNK in longhand as four computers in a row died on me, but I have spent so many years writing and editing on a mac, I do find it quicker and easier to do books this way too. I don’t know what I would do without a cut-and-paste facility!
I don’t want to jinx anything, so just keeping my fingers crossed on one possibility that is currently floating in the aether.
Anything to say about ebooks?
Not really. I wouldn’t want to read a book that way, having said all of the above about what computers do to your eyes, and also, being the Luddite I am, still loving the feel and weight of books themselves, the way I prefer LPs to CDs. Books are like friends to me, I like to be surrounded by them, not have them locked up in an electronic filing cabinet that has the potential to malfunction the way all my old computers did. I lost about ten years’ worth of interview transcripts in those buggers.
I am honestly rather partial to a pint of Old Peculier. And the odd glass of Champagne…
A huge thanks to Cathi for taking the time and to Anna-Marie Fitzgerald of Serpent’s Tail for making the arrangements.
Cathi’s at The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate this July on the ‘Old Blood’ panel.
For more on Cathi Unsworth, her books and to download passages from Bad Penny Blues that she soundtracked with her friend Pete Woodhead, who did the soundtrack for Shaun of the Dead and was in some cool bands that old skool Sheffield scenesters would know about, get along to www.cathiunsworth.co.uk
And get along to Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival and book your ticket
Keith B Walters